Editor's Note: This account is from the February 23, 1879 New York Times. The tone of the article reflects the time period in which it was written.
"A Winter Ramble Over The Surface of the Hudson – Fishing Through The Ice – A Trap for Ice-Yachts – Trying Speed With Thought – Looking Down Upon A Winter Scene
Walking on the surface of the deep is no miracle in our climate. But the experience is quite rare enough to make a vivid impression, especially on those who tread habitually the dull sidewalks of a city. For the mind is haunted by at least a feeling of the miraculous as you walk over a great lake or river. The elements seem to have forgotten their laws, and the whole face of nature is weird when her gleaming eyes turn glassy. This unusual view of nature drew me to visit the Winter scenes on the Hudson. I purposed on this Winter walk to go from Poughkeepsie to Newburg on the ice, through the region renowned for ice-boating; where they hold tournaments for lady skaters; where they trot horses when they cannot row regattas; and where Winter life on the ice may seen in its perfection. I started by skating, and I rested from this by sailing, and walking part of the time, for I have a friend on the way who is a famous iceboat skipper; and we skipped about the river with the speed of the wind. I can scarcely call the trip a walk; for I traveled neither all by water nor by land, nor yet as the fowls of the air. But, however I went, the excursion was delightful with scenes and experiences characteristic of the Winter life of the Hudson.
As I left the dock at Poughkeepsie and skated out over the river, a thrill – almost a shiver – ran through me as I thought of the depths. But a few inches below my feet. Of course, one is not afraid on ice nearly a foot thick, but this unusual relation to deep wide water is unavoidably startling. You say to yourself there is no danger, but you feel to yourself, this is all very queer. The first minutes of my trip were therefore a little chaotic, with the confidence born of other people’s opinions, yet, with my own secret questioning about the ice all the way down my long route. But the exhilaration of the keen Winter morning soon bore away every other feeling. The thermometer marked only 15 degrees; a light west wind blew down over the hills of Ulster County, and the clear air and sunlight made the most distant scenes appear like faultless miniatures. I looked down the river 20 miles, over my whole route. The river near by was a narrow level valley between high banks of bare trees. The hills over-topping the banks were also brown and bare, excepting here and there a patch of snow or a knoll crowned with cedars that added deep shadows to the sober face of nature. The level valley of ice ran straight away to the distance between dark wooded headlands projecting one behind another, and marking in clear perspective the long vista of the river. The valley seemed to end at the foot of the Highlands, which over-topped the whole scene with their majestic heads, now gray with snow under a bare forest. This long level of ice was generally smooth, excepting here and there, a low wandering ridge of projecting edges and cakes at cracks; and the shores were marked by a tide.
Groups of men and boys were seen down the valley, even far off, and a few ice-boats were moving about at Milton, four miles below, and at New-Hamburg, 10 miles off. The mirage was very strong this clear morning, so the boats appeared double, as if one ran on the ice and other under it. The new ice was a curious record of nature in a warm and lenient hour. Jack Frost seemed a tell-tale of his freaks. He had pressed her white flowers; he had preserved her little landscapes modeled in the ice of rivulet, gorge, and bluff; he had caught the wind playing with the ripples and locked them fast, and he had painted the clouds and scattered crystals for the stars.
I soon reached Blue Point, where some fishermen were taking up their nets, and a few boys were grouped about them. Two men at each end of a narrow trench cut through the ice, and hauled up a line. These lines at last brought up a net 12 feet square, with a pole across the bottom, weighted with a stone at each end. The nets are lowered her about 50 feet, or half way to the bottom, and 10 to 20 of them are put down in a row across the current, over a reef or rocky point. The upper ends of the lines are tied to sticks that lie across the open trench, or stand up in the ice. The nets swing off under the ice, by the pressure of the current, and fill out like open bags. Catfish run into them, and are kept there by the current until slack water enables them to leave; but perch and bass are caught by the gills in the two-and-a-quarter-inch meshes. When the nets had all been lifted and put down again, the men picked up the few perch and young sturgeons, frozen as stiff as sticks, and walked to the shore. There they had a flat-boat decked over for a house. Bunks, stove, and various fishing-tackle filled the little cabin with a chaotic mass. They will launch their boat when the ice leaves, and float up or down then river as inclination may direct. In good seasons this ice-fishing yields often 50 pounds of fish at a lift, the men make about $10 per day with 20 nets. This year the fishing here is very poor, for the great freshet of the Fall carried the bass down to Haverstraw Bay.
I left the fishermen of Blue Point, and skated down the opposite shore. The bluffs along the railroad cuts were hung with great icicles, some of them 8 or 10 feet long. Every projecting ledge of some cliffs, from top to bottom, was decked with these splendid crystals, flashing in the sunlight. And at their feet, the twigs and rocks were covered with round forms of quaint shapes. While I stood there the rails began to ring faintly, but clearly as a bell, in the frosty air. The sounds beat in quick pulsations, grew to a rumbling, then to an increasing roar, and in a moment an express train came around the point at a thundering pace. All the stillness and peace of the morning vanished as before the blast of war. It passed in an instant; the roaring fled; the rails rang again with a clear, pure music, softer, and fainter still, and then the Winter silence came once more over the valley of ice. The solemn repose of the great river was then unbroken. For even its mutterings were solemn, when the ice cracked under my feet with a loud report, and the sound darted away in quick, erratic angles to the bluff, and still rumbled on in persistent gloom. The falls at the Pin Factor were a scene of prettier details. The rocks were covered with pillowy masses of whitish ice, and the clear water came down in zig-zag courses, now over these pillows, now under ice caverns built over rocks. The steep descent of the stream was guarded by rustic balustrades of roots and branches, all covered with ice, and the whole was partly veiled by some bare elms, bushes, and dark cedars. A nearer view of the ice showed it to be a bank of crystal flowers, gleaming faintly with prismatic hues in the sunshine. The water ran all over it in little rivulets perfectly free from earthly stain. The dim caves were the most poetic objects; they had neither a ray of sunshine nor a line of shadow within them; yet their sculptured walls were exquisitely shaded with the softest, clearest lights, and the arch in front was hung with crystals of brilliant colors. The whole fall was full of magic, the faint Winter music of the stream, the exquisite delicacy of forms petrified as in death, and the strangeness of objects that transmit light instead of casting shadows. The only witness of the scene is an old mill with a crumbling wheel that once turned round to the music of the brook. Now when the moonlight shines on his tottering form on the falls in the magic of Winter, and on the wide river groaning in his bed, the scene must be still more weird, if not more beautiful.
I went on to Milton, and there found my friend and his ice-boat ready for a cruise further down the river. I put on a few suits of clothes, woolen socks, arctics and mittens; then we embarked, and glided away toward New Hamburg. Other boats were skimming over the ice, and we exchanged many social greetings, if that term can be applied to salutations that begin and end at opposite points of the horizon. I dream of flying when I hold the tiller of an ice-boat, and find myself flitting about the earth, and reaching a place almost as soon as my thought of it. We flew about the Hudson for an hour or more, here turning to visit this point or that, there pausing in our flight to enjoy the excitement of another start, or to touch the social scenes and incidents of this Winter life. At a place near Milton we were admiring a large boat coming from the distance at great speed. Suddenly she stopped. As something was evidently the matter, we ran down there, and found her fast in a hollow that had been filled with water and then skimmed with thin ice. These hollows form by the expansion of the ice. The expansion across the river drives the ice up the shore, so that no cracks form up and down the stream. But the still greater expansion of the long stretches of ice up and down the river find no such room as the shores. The ice, therefore, doubles up, or buckles. It thus either throws up a low ridge, or else forms a hollow, on each side of the cracks running across the stream. The ridge does not interfere much with travel until one side of it drops down and makes a step or fault. But the hollow fills with water, sometimes several feet deep; and at last the tide catches one side of the inclined cakes or sides of the hollow, doubles it under, and carries it away. These clear, open cracks, from 10 to 20 feet wide, are slow to freeze, and generally offer the most dangerous places on the ice. They may form at any time, even in cold weather; so that constant attention and good light are required in raveling up or down the river. But, to return to the stranded ice-boat. She had a good breeze, and had come to this hollow too suddenly to avoid it. If the new ice had been a little stronger, or else narrower, it might have held her up till her forward runners had reached the old ice on the further side of the hollow, and the high wind, with her momentum, would have drive her through. This she would have “jumped a crack,” as the phrase goes; instead of this she “broke through,” as another phrase goes, and her passengers and crew were there surrounded by broken thin ice over a hollow of water in a depression of old ice. Now, we were interested chiefly in the passengers, for they were two very pretty girls, who explained with much animation and distinctness that they would like to get out of that situation. They appeared very well in the midst of rich furs and robes, but for once this advantage was ignored. So we had all the pleasure of their unnecessary distress, and finally landed them, still warm and dry, on the old ice. Then the boat was rescued, and amid many thanks on one side and some merry advice on the other, both parties darted away on the wind. We were afterward favored with pretty salutations from them, too literally en passant, yet too long drawn out for any comfort. Afterward, the same hollow entrapped a second boat; but this had only men aboard and we let them scramble out by themselves. A third boat came up to see what was the matter, and also ran into the trap. Then a fourth came up with a gust of wind, and ran her port runner and the rudder in before she could be rounded to. The water flew, the ice rattled; and it came so suddenly that the whole crew jumped off in a fright. But the whole crew was only one man, and the helmsman stuck to his tiller and brought her out to clear sailing again.
At Marlboro we found a crowd of skaters and sliders, collected to witness a horse-race on the ice. They all seemed to be animated with red, red noses. For the wind was keen, and they had to keep in constant motion. Some rosy girls and boys, with scarlet mittens and comforters, were skating hand in hand along the retired nooks of the shores. And some of the farmers from the hills were speeding their horses up and down the straight track on the ice. The village looked down on the scene from the head of its picturesque ravine. Northward, the river stretched away between its bold banks to Poughkeepsie, throwing up a cloud of thin smoke on the Western wind. Southward, the valley of ice ran between still bolder heads of dark cedars, along the sweeps of Low Point, past Newburg, and down to the foot of the Highlands. The gray heads of the mountains were nearer and grander now than when I first saw them from up the river. As the afternoon was passing away, we had to turn our backs on the swarms of boys and men at the horse-race, wave a last farewell to our pretty acquaintances on the ice-boat, and stand away southward. We flew along with a stiff breeze past New-Hamburg, the bold hills at Hampton, and on to other picturesque points. Cracks in the ice here and there made us turn in and out, and flit about with the quick motions of a bird. At last I had to give up the tiller, at the Dantz Kammer Point, shed my various suits down to a walking load, and bid the skipper good by as he flew away up the river.
But, after all, give me the sober earth for better or for worse. I enjoyed again the firmness of a good hard road, and the steadfast reality of a good walk down to Newburg. The road gradually mounts the high bank of the river among an army of cedars storming the height, and some farm-houses and orchards in their Winter reserve. At the top of the hill, near Balmville, you look back up the river and over the plains of Dutchess County. Southward the view includes the rolling hills about Newburg and Fishkill, the spires of these pretty towns, and the broad bay between them. The valley of ice contracts there to enter the magnificent gorge of the Highlands, and then disappears behind the shoulders of the mountains. These majestic spirits of the Winter scene are now still grander as you near their feet and gaze at their hoary, silent crowns. The suburbs of Newburg were quite cheerful. Carriages, with spirited horses, and with rosy faces above rich robes, dashed along the roads, and here and there a cozy home-scene shone out of window among evergreens. The town, too, was alive with teams and people from the surrounding country. Winter vigor and high spirits pervaded both man and beast. And I was kin enough to each to share in their joy for the keen Winter day. C.H. F."
Thank you to Hudson River Maritime Museum volunteer George Thompson, retired New York University reference librarian, for sharing these glimpses into early life in the Hudson Valley. And to the dedicated museum volunteers who transcribe these articles.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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